Tony Vagneur: No small potatoes
The beauty of the place is astonishing, one of those large mesa hayfields that have an interesting layout, a place I hadn’t been to since I was 14 or 15. In reality, the East Mesa, as referred to in the local vernacular, is about four times bigger than I remembered, and the rugged magnificence is of the “old order,” looking at the backside of Starwood and Red Mountain, making the denseness of Woody Creek appear impenetrable. The Elk Mountains are fine but hold nothing over this view. And besides, it’s at the mouth of Collins Creek.
My dad’s sister Eileen and her husband, Vic Goodhard, bought this ranch back in about 1953 or so, in the days when it still seemed possible for a young couple to buy their own spread and make it in the world of ranching. The previous owners, Oliver Bionaz and his mother, were the last two remaining of their immediate family and were past the age of getting all the work done. They moved into Aspen.
Vic and Eileen picked the place up for a song in today’s world, but still a heavy lift back in those days. A little help from my grandfather got them in the door, but ranching is a brutal business. A 20-cow grazing permit in Hunter Creek came with the place along with some used, borderline equipment. The best of the lot, a couple of draft horses, Tony and Queenie, had residence in the barn, and in the beginning were the pride of the farm. Tony was blind in one eye.
I was barely old enough to wash behind my ears, but when needed they hired me to represent them in the Red Mountain cattle pool for group drives. Riding with guys like Stanley Natal, Art and Nino Trentaz, Alvin Nye and the hired cowpuncher, whose name escapes me, I learned the Hunter Creek terrain like the back of my hand. Vic and I put in some long days on our own, sometimes getting home well after dark. We backed our stock truck up to Lenado mine tailings to load and unload our horses.
Potatoes were going out of local favor due to government restrictions, but they represented a cash crop to the struggling young couple, and the land was plowed. The nephew down the road, the one who rode the cattle pool for them, also was made available for picking the ever-attendant pig and other weeds out of the potato patches.
Blisters, I remember big blisters on my hands and muscle cramps from my fervent work. And then, at harvest time, I’d get a few of my friends to come help us pick the potatoes and put the crop in the cellar. They also planted raspberries and strawberries and a large garden.
The ranch housing was a little less than one would expect today. The Bionaz home, a small log house with a dirt floor, had been basically used up, and Vic and Eileen moved into a larger cabin up the hill about 50 yards. A two-story log structure, it had two rooms on the ground floor and two rooms upstairs.
In the reality of the times there was no running water or indoor plumbing. A large coal stove in the kitchen heated the entire house. With two kids on the ground and a third on the way, no one thought such situation particularly distressing or unusual. Birthday parties, visiting family, threshing and potato crews, it all came together seamlessly. I spent the first three years of my life in very similar circumstances.
When you’re a kid everything seems like forever, and it never occurred to me that anyone else would ever live there. Vic and Eileen spent years trying to make the place work. A little cash for crops or livestock here, a little outside work there, sometimes a “farmer’s season” deer or elk, and the hardships were manageable.
My granddad and I would sometimes go the long way and stop for a short visit before heading up Collins Creek to check on our own cows, or other times I’d ride my horse Spades up to just visit. It was family, it was close, but in the end dreams and hard work cannot always overcome reality.
It’s impossible to write about this without smiling, and Vic and Eileen, in later years when they’d built a successful Aspen business, always looked back on those ranch days with nostalgia, a fondness that couldn’t be shaken, and unfailingly declared that those were some of the best years they’d had.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.